Book Recommendation: The Aquariums of Pyongyang


Authors: Kang, Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot

Publication Date: August, 24, 2005

Publisher: Basic Books

Page Number: 238

I’ll always remember my Korean professor who defected from North Korea to South Korea.  He spoke of the dangers on both sides.  You must really want to leave there because there is a good chance you won’t make it.  For those that don’t, you will be sent to political prison camps, tortured, or executed.  But as with everything, the chance of freedom from the control, disease, and hunger the North Korean government forces upon its citizens is much more powerful.  The defectors usually exit by the way of China and then after a while enter South Korea or other countries where they have the freedom to watch more than a few television channels and learn that it was North Korea who instigated the war instead of South Korea or the United States.  They realize how twisted the North Korean regime is including their contradictions of its leaders as they demonize everything but Communism, but love certain parts of Western culture such as Hollywood movies and Dennis Rodman.  As they learn more about their homeland, they realize the depths North Korea takes to compete with South Korea and to be noticed as a formidable country on the world stage.

While The Aquariums of Pyongyang gives some historical context, it is mainly the story of Chol-Hwan as he lived a good life in North Korea until the government decided his family was a threat.  His family, except his mother, became political prisoners for many years at Yodok, a concentration camp.  The bad thing is it wasn’t the worst of the camps, but the good thing is he was eventually released.  He entered as a child and left as a teenager complete with anger and ingenuity.  He clearly struggled and witnessed violence and death on a massive scale, but he also speaks of things he learned.  I felt  there were times he wrote his experiences at a distance, and while I understand this given its gravity, I wished there had been a little more emotional description.  I did get more of this in the last few chapters, but ultimately he wrote it the way he wanted to because it’s his story and no one else’s.  It may hint that as a child he wasn’t in a place to adequately and willingly express his emotions as he spoke of his issues dealing with what happened once he was released.  There was no denying he was a number in a cruel place where the guards and enforcers suffer just as much as the prisoners.  There is no winner or losers when it comes to its citizens.  There are only losers and bigger losers because the real enemies are those no one can talk about except to cherish them 365 days of the year.  It’s silence and fear on one side and brainwashing and control on the other that sustains the North Korean regime.  This book was written for the sole purpose of educating what these principles have done to a family and to a country as a whole.


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